Why startups and research can make the UK a 5G leader

Despite the changes in Whitehall over the past few years, a desire by the government for the UK to be a 5G leader has remained constant.

Rhetoric from government ministers has been supported with consultations and funding to find new applications and services as well as frameworks that support research and the 5G ecosystem, which it is hoped will allow startups to flourish.

It is estimated by the government’s Future Connectivity Challenge Group that a strong national position in 5G could add £173 billion to the British economy from 2020-30, so it’s no wonder there is enthusiasm.

Testbeds have popped up in parts of the UK and it is generally accepted that 5G will deliver faster speeds, low latency and high capacity, powering all manner of devices from mobile phones to industrial appliances.

Thanks to advances in research, the first commercial networks are set to go live in 2019 – one year earlier than previously predicted – but perhaps not in the UK.

So if we cut through they hype - and some of it has been deliberately generated to attract the interest of businesses – can the UK really take a leading role?

Can Uk be a 5G leader?

The astronomical costs of the 3G spectrum licences and legal delays to the 4G auction stopped the UK from being a leader for the past two generations, but Mansoor Hanif, director of converged networks at BT, believes the UK is in a good place.

EE was the first UK operator to launch 4G back in 2012, using existing 1800MHz spectrum instead of waiting for the auction, and is now the UK's largest LTE operator in terms of coverage and subscribers. It was bought by BT in 2015 for £12.5 billion.

“I arrived in 2011 [at EE] and we were backwards, we were the 54th country in the world to launch 4G,” he told a Westminster eForum.

“We’re now back in the top five in terms of subscriptions, for the first time since the GSM days.”

To take a lead in 5G development, he wants the UK to make the most of its research capabilities, noting that BT and EE have been working with the three main university projects at Kings College London (KCL), the University of Bristol and the 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at the University of Surrey.

“We have some assets that we need to make the most of, such as AI research,” he said, noting that British universities are the biggest investors in UK tech. “We need to apply that to our networks.

“5G is different. With the separation of software and hardware, there is more space for startups.”

Hanif said the government’s decision to build an LTE-powered Emergency Services Network (ESN), which EE is delivering, is one of the first times it has put itself ahead of the curve. But he reiterated calls from the industry to make it easier to deploy network infrastructure if it wanted to avoid a repeat of slow 4G rollout.

“If we start 5G today [like we did with 4G], it will take until 2025 to achieve national coverage,” he added.

Ultimately Hanif believes the UK will be a 5G leader and that it’s not absolutely necessary for a country to be first to be considered the true leader. Indeed, it might be better to wait until the true benefits are more obvious and be a rapid follower.

“If we want to be first, we need to make sure the technology is cost-effective,” he explained.

Barriers to entry

His view was shared by Caroline Gabriel, co-founder of Rethink Technology Research who has been following the industry since the days of the 3G auction debacle.

She said it was more important to get the business model and the structure right first, rather than launch expensive new networks that cannot pay for themselves. Faster mobile broadband speeds, she argued, wouldn’t open up new revenues streams but new, innovative services devised by the operators and starters that would do this.

“Does it matter [to be first]?” she asked. “I don’t think so. You don’t need to be first. Unless you’re [Japanese operator] NTT DoCoMo, you won’t be generating shareholder value.”

Although the issue of possible delays to the 5G auction spectrum has been averted, uncertainty of cost, revenue, spectrum and standardisation remain significant barriers. And that’s before you consider the fact that 4G has a lot of life left in it.

Fortunately, Gabriel argued, the UK’s research into 5G was advanced and several operators believe that if next generation networks do nothing but reduce costs it would have been worth it.

If anything, the main issue to be decided was if 5G network operators would be utilities or service providers because the evidence suggests it is impossible to be both. A telco that decided to be a utility could provide a platform for third parties to thrive and deliver the revenue opportunities for everyone in the 5G ecosystem.

“A regulatory environment that gives flexibility and allows smaller providers to compete with huge operators would be beneficial,” she said.

“I’m personally of the opinion that [there will be a] utility model and there will be a few players in infrastructure and these will support far larger numbers of service providers.”

“I think in terms of nuts and bolts, there will be more opportunity for [all other types of companies.]," agreed Hanif. "That’s what we’re trying to get – an ecosystem.

“It doesn’t really matter if you’re a big player or a small player, it’s never been such a level playing field because of the changes that are coming. It doesn’t really matter what size you are.”

Role of startups

If it is this ecosystem of large operators, academic research and startups that will make the UK a 5G leader, then someone needs to bring them altogether.

Dritan Kaleshi, lead technologist and 5G Fellow at the government-funded Digital Catapult is working to help do just that.

“We sit in a very impartial technology neutral way across an entire ecosystem,” he said of the Digital Catapult. “We focus on how these technologies will bring transformation across the UK.”

Technology choice, cost of deployment and regulatory frameworks are but three challenges the UK faces, but demand generation and the creation of new business models is an opportunity for smaller firms.

A UK 5G ecosystem report will be published in April and early findings have discovered 57 different industry projects covering all areas such as security and AI.

“We need to look at demand-driven innovation,” he argued. “It’s not just about technology, its about what it enables.

“This is one of the biggest challenges and in this space, SMBs have a huge role. There is huge innovation coming through the software-isation of the network. They will be able to bring new innovations to the markets much quicker.”

World stage

When 5G is being deployed at the Winter Olympics and operators in other countries are talking about 2019 launches, it can be easy to conclude that the UK has no chance of becoming a leader in next generation networks.

But the general consensus is that with favourable regulation from government and support for researchers and startups, the UK can genuinely be a 5G pioneer.

So are we really that far behind the curve?

“No,” according to Howard Benn, head of standards and industrial affairs at Samsung UK. “The working systems in South Korea are the same as the ones we’ve trialled here in the UK. We don’t have the manufacturing base but we have the software skills, although we have lost some of the radio capabilities. 

"On a trial basis, we’re on par with many parts of the world and we’re ahead of many places in Europe.”

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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.